Dr. Sarada Menon’s path to education hasn’t been straightforward. Back in the 1930s, Menon was pursuing her education relentlessly even when she was the only kid left in her high school in Chennai, India. When the school refused to continue holding classes for a single student, she requested another institution to admit her, and they did.
Menon would go on to make history as India’s first female psychiatrist, but she didn’t know it yet. Post high school, she decided to pursue science in a bid to prepare for medical school. However, her parents weren’t pleased. “My family was conservative. They didn’t want ladies to study,” Menon reminisced. Despite the pressure, she stayed adamant about going after the one subject that piqued her interest: medicine.
A year into college, Menon approached the principal at a local medical institute in the 1940s. Menon was keen on switching to medical school as soon as possible and managed to secure admission after talking to the principal. By this time, tragedy had struck. She had to cope with the death of her mother when she was just 18.
Upon graduation from medical school, she found herself at a crossroad. “I didn’t know what to do next. Nobody showed interest in my medical career [as a woman]. I did everything by myself,” she said. She sought advice from her mother’s former gynecologist and volunteered at her hospital before pursuing her residency in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh.
In the 1950s, Menon had her first brush with the nuances of psychiatry when she enrolled for a master’s degree in general medicine. During training, she was introduced to several patients in the psychiatry ward. She was aghast at the state of affairs. “We did not know the cause of their problems nor the management of such behaviour. The problem was unknown [and we couldn’t do much about it],” Menon said, referring to how underdeveloped psychiatry was in India in the 50s. “[This is when] I felt like I needed to contribute to the field of psychiatry.”
“Nobody showed interest in my medical career [as a woman].”
This paved the way for Menon’s stint as a student of psychiatry at The National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (NIMHANS) in Bengaluru. Menon was part of the institute’s third graduating class in 1957 and she saw psychiatry evolve during her time at NIMHANS. “The stage that I saw as a student changed for me. The patients I saw…gradually improved and their behaviour was now manageable,” Menon said. “They were more accessible…that gave me hope.”
Throughout her career, Menon has had to tackle the stigma associated with mental health and has worked to educate families and schools on the subject. Recalling an incident at a school several years ago, Menon asked the principal, who also happened to be her friend, to get teachers to track behavioural changes in students. The educator brushed off Menon’s request and refused to take it forward.
For Menon, being in the field of psychiatry has been a major eye-opener in more ways than one. She believes that the complexity of treatment and rehabilitation of patients living with mental illnesses often goes unacknowledged. One of Menon’s patients at SCARF is a young mother, an IT professional in her 30s. After being diagnosed with paranoia, she received treatment and was on the road to recovery. However, after getting married and conceiving, she started relapsing. Menon spoke to her and realized she wasn’t on her medications anymore.
Menon was helpless as she had little information to work with. “It became so bad that she stopped coming [for consultation] and I lost touch with her. I kept asking around…[and checked with] nurses and ward boys.” Things spiraled out of control and after digging around, Menon realized her patient was alone in a hotel room with her baby and didn’t want to see anyone. She intervened and helped the women get access to treatment. “It was really heartbreaking to see her like that,” Menon said. “She is in bad shape and is still under treatment [at SCARF].”
One of Menon’s major takeaways from the incident was that it’s essential for auxiliary staff members in hospitals to be educated about mental health and empathy. Upon relapse, the aforementioned patient battled delusions and asked nurses to help her. They didn’t know how to handle the situation. Another key lesson? Patients need to be encouraged to ease back into a routine that helps them during the recovery process.
“[There are] girls who end up permanently in [the psychiatric units] of hospitals even after they are discharged.”
Menon is a huge advocate of rehabilitation: in 1984, she founded the Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF) in a bid to transform rehabilitation for patients living with mental illnesses. The non-profit has a range of vocational training programs that focus on identifying individual strengths and helping patients stay independent post treatment. It includes a daycare center, inpatient and outpatient services, awareness programs, workshops, medical camps and more. “[There are] girls who end up permanently in [the psychiatric units] of hospitals even after they are discharged,” Menon said, referring to the large number of female patients whose families refused to accept them after diagnosis. Some women were not allowed back into their homes because of the stigma associated with mental illnesses, Menon said. “Married [and] divorced women also need to take on domestic responsibilities. There are already a lot of problems women [living with mental illness] face. So that is why and how I started SCARF.”
Menon has been in the medical field for several decades and built a career that’s nothing short of remarkable: she was appointed as the first female superintendent at The Institute of Mental Health in Kilpauk, Chennai in 1961. She led the opening of a psychiatric unit at the hospital and directed many other initiatives thereafter. According to her, mental health is bound to get more complex in the future and while there are more facilities to accommodate those, not enough is being done on a personal level. “Nowadays, we look into just numbers on the tests…patients are not even being looked at, no one gives them [the] time [they need],” she said.
Right now, Menon, who has spent nearly seven decades advocating for mental health, doesn’t feel like she’s anywhere close to being done. She spends her free time practicing yoga, reading a vast range of books and advocating for mental health awareness. “[I want] everyone to look at mental health [the way they approach] physical health issues,” she said. “People with mental health issues should be treated like anyone else. They need to be shown kindness.”